Even the king cobra is "vulnerable." More than 1 in 5 species of reptiles worldwide are threatened with extinction, according to a comprehensive new assessment of thousands of species published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Of 10,196 reptile species analyzed, 21% were classified as endangered, critically endangered, or vulnerable to extinction—including the iconic hooded snakes of South and Southeast Asia. Similar prior assessments had been conducted for mammals, birds, and amphibians, informing government decisions about how to draw boundaries of national parks and allocate environmental funds. Work on the reptile study—which involved nearly 1,000 scientists and 52 co-authors—started in 2005.
The project was slowed by challenges in fundraising, said co-author Bruce Young, a zoologist at the nonprofit science organization NatureServe. "There’s a lot more focus on furrier, feathery species of vertebrates for conservation," Young said, lamenting the perceived charisma gap. But reptiles are also fascinating and essential to ecosystems, he said. "This work is a very significant achievement—it adds to our knowledge of where threatened species are, and where we must work to protect them," said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who was not involved in the study. Standout findings, per the AP and New York Times:
- The Galapagos marine iguana, the world's only lizard adapted to marine life, is classified as "vulnerable" to extinction.
- Six of the world's species of sea turtles are threatened. The seventh is likely also in trouble, but scientists lack data to make a classification.
- About 60% of all turtle species are at risk of extinction, and about 50% of crocodile species.
- Worldwide, the greatest threat to reptile life is habitat destruction. Hunting, invasive species and climate change also pose threats.
- Reptiles that live in forest areas, such as the king cobra, are more likely to be threatened with extinction than desert-dwellers, in part because forests face greater human disruptions, the study found.
- The Times points out one silver lining: There's some "relief" in the findings. Because of scientists' knowledge gap when it comes to reptiles' needs vs. those of mammals, birds, and amphibians, there was concern "the results would show reptiles slipping away because they required different conservation methods." The overlap they uncovered was reassuring, says Young. "We have all the tools we need. Reduce tropical deforestation, control illegal trade, improve productivity in agriculture so we don’t have to expand our agricultural areas. All that stuff will help reptiles, just as it will help many, many, many other species."